A task force appointed by the Southern Baptist Convention at an annual meeting, prompted by concerns centered around statistical data that shows baptisms, total church membership and weekly attendance has plateaued and begun to decline in the denomination, will present its report in Orlando in June at the annual meeting. Early revelations from the task force indicate that most of the strategy planned to help reverse the statistical decline will fall on the shoulders of the North American Mission Board and the state conventions, via a financial reorganization and restructuring plan.
On February 22 of this year, a progress report was issued from the task force, outlining what it was dealing with, and some of the general framework of strategy that it would recommend be employed to help the SBC turn some of its declining numbers around. Since the Southern Baptist Convention is made up of 45,000 independent, autonomous churches which are involved in a voluntary cooperative relationship with the denomination and its entities, and the denomination’s action is limited within the confines of relationships between independent churches, independent and autonomous state conventions, and the North American Mission Board of the SBC, the success or failure of any denominational initiative involves getting as many churches and state conventions as possible to buy into the plan. That may be the inherent weakness of the strategy.
There are a few assertions in the February report which should probably be examined carefully.
First, in delivering the progress report, Dr. Ronnie Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church of Springdale, Arkansas, referenced a passage of scripture from Joel 2:12-17. I’m not going to challenge Dr. Floyd’s theological perspective, but I just get a little bit nervous when someone sitting on a denominational committee (or “task force”) cites an Old Testament minor prophet for scriptural support for what they are about to do. That’s an indication that there are at least some individuals on the task force who want to get around the obstacles presented by the independence and autonomy of all of the churches and organizations involved, and invoke a little more direct control. Those minor prophets all spoke words from God directed at very specific circumstances and situations, and I have difficulty seeing that there is a direct relationship between Old Testament Israel and the Southern Baptist Convention.
Floyd then points out that, of the 340 million people who live in North America, 258 million are lost and perishing. I’m not necessarily going to dispute those numbers, though I would like to see a source for it. Obviously, in citing these statistics, there is some conclusion being drawn that not all of those who claim church membership are Christian, and I won’t dispute that claim, either, though I wonder if the 7 million people on SBC church rolls, but who don’t ever show up for church are included in their estimation? From there, he jumps to citation of statistics which show that 82% of the population of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, California, Washington, Oregon and Canada are lost, and that the SBC only has a total of 3,983 churches in these areas, and that in Connecticut, Maine, Massachussetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont 83% of the people are estimated to be lost, and there are only 1,068 Southern Baptist churches there to “penetrate the lostness.”
At this point, it wouldn’t appear to be out of line to think that the general impression is being created that Southern Baptists are singularly the only hope to penetrate these parts of the country with the gospel, and the reason they are not being penetrated is because we simply do not have enough churches in these areas to do the work effectively. Floyd correctly acknowledges that the headquarters of the denomination is not in Nashville or Richmond or Louisville or Dallas, but it is with each of the 50,000 individual churches which make up the Southern Baptist Convention, and if Southern Baptists are going to carry out the great commission, they must do it church by church. Agreed.
Then the other shoe drops.
The idea that those 50,000 churches might not collectively be doing what the denominational leadership thinks they ought to be doing in terms of evangelism and outreach is nicely couched in politically correct terms, but there is a very clear approach here that is leaning heavily in the direction of convincing the churches to open the door a bit wider, surrender some of their autonomy and independence (perhaps as punishment for not reaching more people in the hinterland of North America) and let the denomination promote and provide a solution to the problem. Among phrases like rallying together as a denomination, trusting God and leaning on the power of the Holy Spirit, and celebrating the truth of God’s word is the suggestion that the North American Mission Board be reinvented and restructured as the primary church planting mechanism of Southern Baptists. In other words, we will roll out a new NAMB through which we can direct the church planting and evangelism activities of the churches, especially those out there in the areas where “lostness” runs rampant. That way, to make sure that things are done right, the efforts will be supervised by individuals in a comfortable office in suburban Atlanta. And to make assurance doubly certain, $50 million or so will be re-allocated from cooperative ministries and subsidies in state conventions so that there are enough resources available for the newly overhauled NAMB to do its work.
Well, we have to “do something,” right?
I may be off base here, and I certainly don’t want to be critical of NAMB, in spite of some of the leadership issues it has faced during the tenure of its last two presidents. Having grown up in the west, in one of those states with a high percentage of lost people, outside the Deep South, in a cooperating Southern Baptist church, I have a few suggestions that might be helpful, though previous experience has taught me that the opinions of non-Southerners don’t count for nearly as much when it comes to denominational operations.
Southern Baptist churches outside of Dixie need to be culturally relevant, and their ministry needs to reflect a thorough knowledge of what it takes to preach the gospel in the culture in which the church exists. Trying to be a clone of the typical Southern Baptist church “down South” will attract some of the transplanted Southerners who live nearby, but in doing that, it will almost certainly keep the church from ever being able to reach into the surrounding culture. Directing church planting operations and managing resources from Atlanta won’t produce the desired results in Seattle. The best thing the SBC can do is to help out with resources, and leave the work to the people who live there and know it best. At the very least, if the denomination insists on controlling the effort, those it places in leadership should be people who are from the churches in the areas that are targeted. There are a lot of places where NAMB partnerships with state conventions have been effective and efficient. Leave them alone. Use them as models.
Take a realistic look at the numbers. There is no way that one agency, under denominational (and thus bureaucratic) control, could ever make a dent in the “lostness” that exists out there without fully cooperating with all of the other like minded Christians who are already there, already have churches, and are already involved in outreach. In some cases, it might even be better to let those who are already established, and have had some success in a particular area, take the lead, and simply help them out by being cooperative, agreeable and supportive. This requires making a decision as to whether “kingdom growth” is more important than denominational statistics. Southern Baptists are going to have to learn that it may be better to support the work of the Assemblies of God in Oregon, or the Evangelical Free Church in Michigan, or the Christian Missionary Alliance in New York than it is to try to plant their own churches there. Yeah, I know, that’s a pipe dream. But look at the numbers. If what Dr. Floyd cited is true, then there is no way one agency, or one denomination, will ever be able to accomplish the task. And that’s just North America.
Recently, when called upon to share some encouragement with a friend who was dying from leukemia, I prayed with him and told him that God didn’t need the world’s best cancer treatment hospital, where he was a patient, to heal him if that was his will. Nor does God need the efforts of the Southern Baptist Convention, especially alone, to reach the world with his gospel. The fact that he chooses to use us should be something we consider to be a blessing. Let’s be careful in our approach to his throne when we venture to claim to be his servants doing his work.
“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools who do not know that they do wrong. Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words.” Ecclesiastes 5:1-3